The animal farm7 min read . Updated: 05 Jun 2015, 11:43 PM IST
Ten horses, one pony, two buffaloes, one cow, four ducks, 10 rabbits, five guinea pigs, two hens, one rooster, four dogs and a girl
While in school in Amritsar, each day I returned home to eight people and 40 animals. The eight people included my parents, brother, grandparents, a cook, a stable hand and an all-important man Friday, who went by the name, Dhilla (translated from Punjabi, the name denotes a lack-lustre personality, not the best trait you’d want in a man Friday). The 40 animals included 10 horses, one pony, two buffaloes, one cow, four ducks, 10 rabbits, five guinea pigs, two hens, one rooster and four dogs. Litters of puppies and baby rabbits and a paddling of ducklings augmented that number at regular intervals. I felt a kinship with Gerald Durrell and James Herriot. We had, luckily, a large garden as old homes in small towns allowed for. It wasn’t meant for 40 animals; my parents’ heart though, had room enough for everyone.
This home teeming with creatures was my quiet space, my oasis. “An oasis?" you may be tempted to ask, since 40 animals imply chaos, mayhem and possible insanity. It was at my first reading for my book Bonkers!, as I counted the animals out loud, that I even realized I’d been in the midst of 40, largely four-legged, co-inhabitants. I called my mother.
“Have you realized that we had 40 animals?"
“Really? Were there so many?" she replied. I sent up a thank-you for their awesomeness.
So much of who I am has been shaped by this rather unusual childhood where most memories and life-lessons are inextricably linked to the animals. The family business was “Suppliers of horses and mules". While the 10 horses were in transit, one, a lovely chestnut-brown mare named Betty, was mine. Betty had the gentlest eyes and began prancing the minute she saw me enter the stable for it often meant a carrot, an apple or her favourite, a lump of jaggery. She’d always reward me with a good nuzzle for sneaking her one.
As the offspring of a horse-and-mule supplier, learning how to ride a horse was expected. It began well with my grandfather, a stern, well-whiskered and turbaned man, giving me riding lessons. Up until he wanted me to go faster, which involved jabbing my shins into Betty’s sides and whacking her with the whip. I couldn’t do it. He cajoled, he threatened dire consequences and he finally yelled. I sat in the saddle, eyes brimming with tears, whip and shins tucked away, with a flat-out refusal. “No. It will hurt her." I never got to a gallop, Betty grazed mid-ride whenever she felt the urge, which was often, and my grandfather wandered off disenchanted by my asserting my will on him instead of the horse. I got my first taste of mutiny. It’s important to stand up for what you believe, even in the face of terrifying whiskers of a horse-and-mule supplier.
Of my first two dogs, one named Zema was blind from birth. Despite her disability, she manoeuvred around furniture as long as you didn’t move it from its place. Her brother Gapoo, my all-time favourite, was the gentlest of dogs. If Zema cried, he howled louder than his sister. He always stayed by her side. If we were in another part of the house and Zema wanted to come down the stairs, he’d run back and forth, barking wildly. We soon figured it was his sign to come get her. It was a privilege to witness their bond.
I experienced the sorrow of losing dogs to old age, sickness and accidents through my adolescent years. I felt each one deeply but it also showed me the transience of life. I’ve held on to memories—plentiful since dogs give their love unconditionally. Isn’t this the most we can hope to achieve: that we be remembered fondly for the love we share with people in our lifetime?
Thankfully, the moments of new life were far more numerous than my experiences of loss; the dogs were incredibly frisky. The first time I witnessed a birth, the bitch in labour frantically headed to a pile of dead leaves as her birthing nest. It was late in the evening, the chill of winter was upon us and cats eager to swipe a pup while the mother was in labour roamed the periphery wall. I sat guard with my family, armed with flashlights. She was whimpering and keening with pain and I felt helpless seeing her cringe and gasp. Then the first sac emerged, instinct kicked in and I watched on in amazement. I was worried she would unknowingly hurt the pup till I realized that she was gently tearing open the amniotic sac, biting off the umbilical chord, and licking the pup to get the circulation going till it showed signs of responding, all just in time before her next set of contractions began. We soon had a litter of four. That evening, everything else around me seemed to be at standstill. I can’t think of any engineered experience for my own children that can ever match the sheer adrenalin of witnessing your pet give birth.
Another time, a pregnancy went awry. Button had struggled through day-long labour. She’d held on to my fingers with her paws, her nails curling around as she stared at me in agony. Late at night, she went into distress and we rushed with her to the vet’s residence. His assistants were unreachable and since there was no time to spare, he instructed my father and me to help. “What does he mean by ‘help’?" I wondered as he began to yell instructions on what I needed to retrieve from the medicine cabinet, even as he began to prep her. “You’ll both need to hold her legs," he said, matter-of-factly. My father asked if I was up for it. I nodded mutely and took a deep breath as he made the incision, retrieving the pups from the womb over the next few minutes. I held Button’s legs through the operation and stayed standing all through. I discovered something new about myself that day: the sight of blood and an immense amount of stress didn’t fray me. I felt mentally stronger than what I thought myself capable of. I even considered being a vet (now, I can’t bear the sight of my child’s blood-streaked grin, triumphantly showing off a fallen tooth. Shudder).
With a menagerie of the sort we had, puppies playing tug-of-war with my braids were often my alarm. Sitting up, I’d have the little fur balls dangling from the ends. Four dogs crowded into the car to drop me to school, sticking their heads into the breeze. If they could talk, I’m sure they’d say, “Bliss is so easy to attain. Just look for it in every gust of fresh air". With an explosion of fur, my friends spent assembly time picking dog-hair off my blazer that was then evaluated for colour to determine the dog it belonged to.
I had my share of mischievous dogs and quirky creatures. One dog often pulled the family’s underwear off the clothes rack and deposited it by the front door to, I suspect, amuse himself with our ensuing shrieks. Another dog, a young first-time mother and a car-drive addict, would plonk her puppies with their grandmother and was the first one in the car every evening. The rooster only crowed at 2pm each day just as people settled in for an afternoon snooze. Rabbits dug tunnels across the road and landed up munching prize dahlias in the neighbour’s garden. A baby squirrel that almost drowned in a monsoon shower joined the household for a day till she was reunited with a worriedly chirruping mother. Weekends were spent with a line of dogs to be bathed, debugged and combed. Rabbits were let out for a run-around and an hour spent rounding them back up, dogs had to be locked in when the ducks were let out and at some point I gave up on naming the rabbits since they seemed to multiply like…rabbits.
There was never a dull moment. There was a whole lot of chaos, a lot to be done and it was never too much (as children, at least we didn’t feel it!). Everything found it’s own rhythm of existence, being from the natural world and bringing a resultant natural calmness to all tasks. It was a life without today’s catchphrases of multitasking, scheduling and carving out time. Instead, the buzz around the house left me with unexpected stillness within.
Most of the animals have gone now and my parents are proud and often exasperated mummy and papa to a solitary cocker spaniel named Obi Singh who equals four dogs in energy and ability to create mayhem. The house is still a natural magnet to creatures—birds, bugs, stray cats and butterflies. My children are always desperate to visit. I am thankful that though big-city bred, they get to experience this home where you can hear birdsong and buzzes: the natural stillness of the oasis of chaos.
Natasha Sharma is the author of children’s books like Icky, Yucky, Mucky! Bonkers!, and the History Mystery series.